White Coats v. Bow Ties

Nicholas Penny

  • Jacopo della Quercia by James Beck
    Columbia, 598 pp, $109.50, February 1992, ISBN 0 231 07200 7
  • Michelangelo and the Creation of the Sistine Chapel by Robin Richmond
    Barrie and Jenkins, 160 pp, £18.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 7126 5290 6
  • Rembrandt. The Master and his Workshop: Paintings by Christopher Brown, Jan Kelch and Pieter van Thiel
    Yale, 396 pp, £35.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 300 05149 2
  • Michelangelo’s Drawings: The Science of Attribution by Alexander Perrig
    Yale, 299 pp, £35.00, June 1991, ISBN 0 300 03948 4
  • Michelangelo and his Drawings by Michael Hirst
    Yale, 128 pp, £14.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 300 04391 0
  • The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation by James Saslow
    Yale, 559 pp, £22.50, April 1991, ISBN 0 300 04960 9

Jacopo della Quercia was one of the great sculptors of the early 15th century, comparable in stature with his contemporaries Donatello and Ghiberti, but his work is less consistent, and more difficult to discuss in the stylistic terms usually associated with Renaissance art. There are three famous works by Jacopo: the tomb of Ilaria del Caretto in Lucca, the doorway of San Petronio in Bologna and the reliefs and statues of the Fonte Gaia, the municipal fountain that originally stood opposite the town hall in Siena.

Although neither San Petronio nor the Fonte Gaia reflects much interest in the antique Roman architecture, ornament and figure style that so absorbed leading Florentine sculptors at the time, the tomb chest on which the effigy of Ilaria lies is carved with nude boys supporting swags of fruit – the first true putti of modern European art, imitated from Roman sarcophagi. Perhaps, indeed, the sculptor had been asked to imitate just such a sarcophagus. In that period in Tuscany it was highly prestigious to use an ancient sarcophagus for a tomb and perhaps none of the right size was available. The effigy would not originally have been placed directly above this frieze of putti. Nevertheless, the contrast between the alert pagan children and the sleeping Christian wife must always have been striking, although not in James Beck’s view.

Ilaria, Beck concedes, ‘may look “Gothic” ’ – as if we were about to claim that she actually was Gothic. Indeed, her narrow, high-collared dress, belted below the breast, with long curving folds falling from belt to feet is Gothic – but, who knows, she might be less so if she took it off. She looks especially Gothic from above, but this cannot have been the view which we were expected to take and so Beck excludes shots looking down at her from his otherwise comprehensive photographic survey. The sweeping lines on the effigy of Ilaria to which Beck thinks we must not pay too much attention are also evident, however, in the Madonna and Child that Jacopo carved for Ferrara at a slightly earlier date. Here they lighten the massive folds of cloak over the Virgin’s knees and give a spring to the pose of the Child who stands on her lap. Even the little pointed shoe which emerges from the Virgin’s skirts and the curls of the Christ’s hair participate in this linear pattern. All the same, the composition is severely architectonic – ‘almost oppressively frontal’, Beck observes.

In the Trenta altarpiece which Jacopo carved in Lucca after completing Ilaria’s tomb, the figures are incorporated in an architectural framework which can only be described as Gothic and are integrated with it to an extraordinary degree: the draperies flow like the fat foliage crockets which wind up the ogee canopies, and the draperies above the Virgin’s head in the central niche form an ogival arch. The elongated figures are bonelessly elastic and have wrists which are flamboyantly unanatomical in their flexibility. Beck admits that there are ‘insistent “Gothic” signs’ here, but he will not remove the inverted commas and tries to deny the vertical character of the figures, asserting that they ‘give the impression of resting stably on a horizontal axis within an implied spatial context’. But there clearly is no sense of repose, no stability and little if anything is implied in the way of space. Beck, unhappy with this ‘indecisive stylistic interlude’, suggests that Jacopo is ‘groping’ and ‘puzzled’. But we are left suspecting that Beck is the one who is groping and puzzled – by the very fact that Jacopo is so decisively Gothic.

Gothic has come to be regarded as the old-fashioned style that was rejected by the progressive Renaissance. Beck wants to avoid this dichotomy but his method of denial is a mode of recognition. The Gothic of the Trenta altarpiece may have come to seem less progressive, but this should be irrelevant to our sense of its merits. When Beck discusses the Fonte Gaia (which survives only in disagreeably weathered fragments misleadingly reassembled under shelter) he exaggerates the degree to which the figures in their broad niches (pointed architecture was inappropriate for so horizontal a composition) are ‘massive, monumental, space-occupying and space-defining’. This is unmistakable art-historical code for ‘progressive in the spirit of Masaccio’, but Jacopo’s monumentality simply wasn’t space-defining in the new Florentine way.

While denying the Gothic element in Jacopo’s work Beck has no trouble acknowledging the elements in his style which could more fairly be regarded as old-fashioned – radically conservative or fundamentally reformist. His debt to the sculpture of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano falls into this category. And so, too, does the debt which his narrative reliefs, especially those at San Petronio, owe to repoussée silver reliefs (a point first made by Baroni in 1956). Much of the work in precious metal from this period has been melted down, but it was the most prestigious form of sculpture. In these reliefs the metal was beaten and punched out from the back: any sense of receding space is rare, and a certain ambiguity of plane is common; rounded projections and tubular drapery folds are preferred to hollows. Here, however, as all too frequently in his book. Beck is hampered by the unfortunate decision not to include any illustrations of work other than Jacopo’s own.

Although Jacopo cannot easily be described as a ‘progressive’ his sculpture was later singled out for special praise by Michelangelo. While it is possible that Michelangelo exaggerated the degree of his esteem precisely because Jacopo had been neglected, his admiration was surely genuine. Michelangelo’s lack of interest in pictorial space, in perspective recession (as distinct from the foreshortening of the human form) and in the incidentals of landscape setting distinguished him from his contemporaries. Jacopo’s narrative reliefs at Bologna reveal a similar lack of interest in the representation of space: aerial and linear perspective are almost entirely absent. In the Nativity scene, for instance, the Virgin reclining after childbirth, the ox and the ass, the Christ child, even the hillside all seem to press forward, out of the relief.

The blunt, almost clumsy force of Jacopo’s finest reliefs, in which the figures have drastically simplified features and the men especially have large powerful hands, may well also have appealed to Michelangelo, as would the almost fleshy thickness of Jacopo’s drapery even at its most Gothic – a plasticity most evident in the ‘thick, abundant, but never ponderous or confining material’ which envelops the Virgin above the door of San Petronio. Michelangelo would have studied this sculpture when he worked in Bologna and Beck feels that his Bruges Madonna – a ‘tiny’ marble, as he inexplicably describes it – might be considered as a ‘homage’ to Jacopo’s.

Jacopo seems to have been far more accomplished as a carver than as a modeller. Michelangelo was also more attracted by carving and his reluctance to create full-size preparatory models for his marbles, or, at the very least, his willingness to ignore them, may explain the failure of some of his sculptures. A similar reluctance might explain why Jacopo’s relief for the Baptismal Font in Siena is so poor. Beck wonders whether he had ‘technical setbacks, for as far as we know he had not worked in bronze since ... 1401, more than a quarter of a century earlier’, but it would have been unusual for a sculptor to play any part in the casting, and the problem may simply have been that Jacopo had no aptitude for shaping clay or wax models for the founder. The poor quality of the reliefs carved on the doorway of San Petronio by Jacopo’s assistants might also be explained by his failure to supply them with clay models to follow.

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